19 September 08

Left Unsaid

Before my mother moved back east a couple of summers ago, she handed me bags and bags of things she wasn’t taking with her but didn’t want to throw away. These included improbable numbers of bottles of moisturizing lotion; they also included all my letters home — since I first went to boarding school in 1973.

I know they must have made us write home weekly, but I was still shocked by the sheer number of them, and by their mostly uniform vacuousness, which continued on into university and beyond. They’re painful to read and mostly I haven’t. But they lurk…

I finished Geraldine Brooks’s March last night, a novel that starts out with the Little Women father writing home. It has been a horrific day, a day in which he, a green army chaplain, has tried (and failed) to save a wounded man from drowning as they retreated in terror from a confederate counterattack. He is wracked with pain and cold and shame and fear and guilt yet none of this makes it onto the page: he writes about the cooking fires around him and the beauty of the sky. The truth of that day — and many other terrible truths about many other days, truths that likewise never made it onto the pages that are sent with love and remorse about the deception — the truth of that day finally emerges as Marmee visits her “very ill” husband in hospital and tries to save him from his demons. She is transformed in this novel from a milquetoast goody-two-shoes into a raging spitfire with a terrible temper (and how we love it: tell it like it is, Marmee), and she feels anger and betrayal at the lies that have been flung her way. Yet when she tries to write home to her daughters, she is faced with the same dilemma: tell the truth and cause pain and anguish, or spare them from it and lie. And then live with the consequences of your lies.

Choices, these are. At the time, it doesn’t seem so momentous. “I’ve started smoking” is a truth I felt able to divulge in a letter home, difficult though it was, leading to a reminder my grandfather had died of emphysema; “I lost my virginity in the darkroom on Saturday” is one I left out. It reveals to me, again, how difficult parenting must be: choosing between honesty and wanting to protect your young. Of course my own omissions can be explained in terms of teenage rebellion, but looking through these letters, there’s more.

If I had been encouraged, or decided on my own, to share with my parents the struggles I was facing — wanting to fit in, wanting to be “cool,” feeling the pressure (of course this would have involved acknowledging it, which was far from the reality) — it may have been possible to write the letters with the integrity that, in hindsight, I wish I’d had. And it’s possible I might have made different choices, guided by parental wisdom and love and, perhaps, honesty.

My grandfather — the one who died of emphysema — was a man for whom lying was close to a crime; it was certainly a sin. He raised my mother and uncle to share this view. Yet, looking through his own letters home during World War I, I see the same reticence to reveal the truth in letters in as Mr. March’s. “I’ve had the grippe but some poor fellows have it much worse” is the only mention I’ve found in any correspondence anywhere from family members that touches on the great flu pandemic of 1918. It is left to my imagination to fathom what he was really seeing, because in tents in western France with thousands of soldiers, many of them ill and dying, it can’t have been something you’d want to see, ever.

Much has been written on the impossibility of language to convey some things so horrific most of us would rather they remain unsaid. This is the project of many films about the holocaust: say the unsayable, because it is the truth, speak it even though you don’t find the words. Truth becomes a driving imperative. We recognize it when we see it — if we’re lucky.

At a time when most of us expect lies of all our leaders, even those at the highest level, when outright untruth or misremembering or failure to remember or I’ll take the fifth or other permutations of culturally sanctioned lying from the top down, lying that has led to, for example, people still dying in Iraq — now is the time to take baby steps to learn how to tell the truth again. It can start with the innocuous things. I didn’t, in fact, make my bed this morning. I got a less than stellar performance review. I made some stupid mistakes in the stock market. We can then progress to “I did have sex with that woman” and “we knew all along there were no weapons of mass destruction.” From there, perhaps, when there are real consequences inherent in the truth we tell, we might make wiser decisions in the first place…

Posted by at 07:05 AM in Books and Language | Link |
  1. Further to our dinner discussion. Great post.

    Susan    19. September 2008, 08:31    Link
  2. Wonderful post.

    “Beyond ending deception and cunning,”, says one of the songs of Milarepa, “There is no other morality.”

    dale    19. September 2008, 10:52    Link
  3. Mmmm. savors post

    Rana    19. September 2008, 13:44    Link
  4. Very powerful post—amazingly true. It is sad that we often don’t feel we can tell the truth, even to our closest loved ones. Sometimes, I feel like people don’t want to hear the truth. They want you to pretend you are always happy. It would be wonderful if we could all have meaningful, honest conversations, at least most of the time.

    Blue Bicicletta    19. September 2008, 16:49    Link
  5. Excellent post.

    There is such a thing as “too much information” (TMI) in certain circumstances. (Thinking of a neighbor who liked to share details about, say, his corns. Or the intimate details of “I did not have sex with that woman” that got published in the newspapers for every school child to read and every parent to have to explain, which was really ironic.)

    leslee    19. September 2008, 16:49    Link
  6. Thinking about Joyce’s “silence, exile, and cunning” as survival strategy—it’s interesting, sometimes, to learn what each of us learned not to say.

    Ron Sullivan    19. September 2008, 17:48    Link
  7. Great post. I really want to read “March” and am glad it sparked this essay from you. (Marmee always expected the girls to tell the truth, didn’t she? Seems like I remember Amy getting punished for fibbing – falling through the ice or something – yes?)

    beth    19. September 2008, 17:57    Link
  8. Powerful post! I like how you have started with the personal and ended with the political. I’m left wondering if not talking or writing about something is being untruthful in some cases, such as a soldier who will not talk of the war…like my father. I think he just did not want to think of it.

    marja-leena    19. September 2008, 20:30    Link
  9. Thanks everyone. Susan, it was a great conversation, thanks for bearing with me through it. Blue Bicicletta, I think you’re right, people often don’t want to hear the truth — but perhaps we live in a world where hearing it isn’t safe.

    Ron: what we learned not to say sets the pattern, I think, for what we don’t say later. This is the trap Mr. March gets into: he starts off by leaving out mildly unpleasant things and then when there’s really bad stuff there’s no way he can tell that. It’s a spiral. But who, Marja Leena, can blame those who have lived through the “River of Fire” to want to forget it, even though that’s a doomed wish?

    Beth: I’m going to have to reread Little Women — I didn’t remember that about Marmee.

    Pica    20. September 2008, 06:07    Link
  10. My mother had a bitter joke about “Legionnaires’ disease” and how my father had a bad case of it. She was speaking figuratively: WW2 was the biggest, baddest thing that had ever happened in a bunch of guys’ lives, and they all went over to the American Legion bar to talk about it and get drunk. Forever and ever amen.

    My sister Jeanne worked as a bartender at the Legion in Orlando (You want irony? Got lots here.) for years, and what she did was some combination of eldercare, fostering, and enabling. And she knew it, and knew that there wasn’t any saviorizing to be done; she just took care of her old guys, and hid their keys and called a cab when necessary.

    I could spend the rest of my life unwinding the various truths in her story.

    Ron Sullivan    20. September 2008, 21:20    Link
  11. Beautifully said. Thank you, and hugs!

    Teresa    21. September 2008, 10:11    Link

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